Exit Archive

Fall 2005 | v.01 n. 01 | Invitational Issue |

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Interrogating Interfaces
Alec MacLeod

California Institute of Integral Studies

The presentation of interactive new media work requires decisions regarding the nature of the interface between the audience and the experience.  Unlike the familiar interfaces with established media such as paintings where viewers can be assumed to have an understanding of the conventional relationships of viewer to frame to painting, new media makers and audiences are often on uncertain ground.  The genesis of this panel was a conversation between myself and my co-chair Laurie Beth Clark about our experiences with audience engagement with our interactive digital work. The ways in which the audience or participants engage appeared to us to be structured by their various experiences and expectations of the interface, frequently with unanticipated consequences, unanticipated by us, that is.  For example, gamers made different assumptions about “navigational” icons and pointers than did people who were primarily socialized to the computer interface through web browsing.  We agreed that familiarity with digital visual conventions in general was varied and not easily predicted.  We saw the problem of the interface as an unresolved aspect of our work and of new media work in general.  We found the challenges created by the non-standard and not yet conventional computer interface to be especially inviting since the structure is typically treated as invisible or intuitive.

In the four presentations for the panel, Interrogating Interfaces, two related themes emerged: 1) the relative adaptation that is expected of the user to the interface and the adaptive nature of the interface itself, and; 2) the relative visibility or invisibility of the interface. This introduction looks at the range of perspectives and considerations discussed in the four papers, noting places of convergence and divergence, and identifying assumptions and implicit questions. 

In regard to the issue of the extent to which those who interact with and through interfaces must adapt and conform, none of the papers take the position that we have, to quote Thoreau, “become the tools of our tools,” with the computer shaping the humans rather than the other way around. [1] At the same time, all papers heed Thoreau’s implicit caution and all the authors acknowledge, in different ways, that the interface shapes and can even control our experience.  All explore ways in which we might become more aware of the ways in which the interface can or does serve and shape us. 

Each of the presentations carries assumptions about the convergence of humans and interface, that is to say the extent to which humans adapt to interface and visa versa. In her paper “Information Mapping the Graphic User Interface” Siu L. Chong suggests co-evolutionary process by which users and the interface adapt to one another.  Chong focuses on the relationship between form and function.  She describes the interface as a tool that supports the users’ needs and choices.  Hers is perhaps the most benign vision, implying that the conventions of the common interface are useful for their familiarity (both as metaphoric references and as now familiar interface activities—such as clicking on icons—which can be seen as self-referential) and that these conventions will “evolve automatically.”  Utility will be the test of what gets kept, discarded, or replaced.  If changes to the interface can be used to “reduce the learning curve,” then they will be instituted and the “level of intuitiveness,” will increase.  In this view, the interface ought to become increasingly transparent and non-intrusive.

Michele White’s vision is perhaps the least benign with the interface insidiously forcing others to adapt to its values.  Her paper “My Hand, My Self: Some Questions about Pointing, Grasping, and Touching ‘through’ the Interface,” discusses a compelling example of the ways in which the computer interface is the perpetrator of cultural imperialism and privileges particular ways of seeing.  Implicit in her analysis is the assumption that the invisibility of the interface is relative; the level of transparency determined by the extent to which it seamlessly reflects the user’s identity and experience.  Her analysis raises some of the most far reaching questions in any of the papers.  How far can her critique be extended?  Are ways of thinking as well as seeing inscribed in the structure of the interface and imposed on those who do not share the epistemic perspective?  Much has been made of the digital nature of computers being dualistic: a matter of ones or zeros and binary decision-making.  For instance, do the either-or choices forced on computer users by menu driven computer forms reinforce categorical thinking and obscure complexity and hybridity, as others have maintained? [2]  Or is this simply a limit to be overcome in the next release? And how ought we to situate such considerations of the interface in larger social and technological discourses?  Is it any surprise that the computer interface—like many other products of our society—is a mirror of the social status quo?   What can we do with our increased awareness of the cultural inscriptions contained in conventional interfaces?  To what extent is the design of the interface a fulcrum on which change can be leveraged? And to what extent is it simply another symptom of larger needs for change?  In interrogating the ubiquitous image of the pointing white hand, White has opened a wide array of questions.

Each of the other two papers, “Adaptive Interfaces” by Michael Salmond and “Confessions of a Fraudulent Pixel” by Vicky Isley & Paul Smith of boredomresearch, are more hopeful.  Each suggests—in different ways—that the interface has the potential to become increasingly democratic and adaptable to the non-elite users.  Where they diverge is in regard to the level of visibility or invisibility in the subsequent development of the interface.  Like Chong, Salmond posits a progressively invisible and intuitive interface and regards the interface as a progressively evolving experience.  As a reference point, he describes the use of telephone and television remote controls as “so integrated and understood in our world that we forget they are there.”  Even he admits, however, these ubiquitous inhabitants of everyday life remain confusing to some users.  To my mind, another familiar interface, the alphanumeric keyboard, presents a counter and perhaps cautionary example.  Numerous analyses have shown that the QWERTY design is far from optimal and most historians describe it as an artifact of the technological needs of its time.  Changing circumstances have not, however, led to the redesign of this particular interface. [3]   Its inefficiency appears likely to be incorporated into the human-computer relationship for the foreseeable future.  Does this mean that files-and-folders could stay, continuing to shape our experience and forcing us to adapt to them, even if they are, as the panelists contend, redundant at best?  

For Chong and Salmond, however, keyboards are more likely the exceptions that prove the rule.  Salmond offers a vision in which the interface is not only adaptive but also capable of adapting to individual users. If we accept this assumption that interfaces will adapt progressively to human needs a number of questions emerge.  Will an emphasis on improving the intuitiveness and invisibility of computer interfaces improve or optimize our relationship with the data and digital tools?  Will this serve to make them more or less adaptive?  Will it increase or decrease or ability to engage with this content critically?  Will the kinds of cultural inscriptions that White describes—such as the default white-handed pointers—vanish as we move towards more efficient forms of data mapping, or towards the use of adaptive intelligent interfaces?  Or will the inscriptions become more entrenched, more subtle, or more insidious?  Will the sense of identity we might feel with our avatars, such as Salmond describes, be available without dissonance to all or only to those in the dominant social location?  Will the apparent transparency of an interface be truly transparent, or ever more mystifying and misleading? Will the user of the interface be ever more shaped by programmers and designers resulting in ordinary people unconsciously adopting normative practices inscribed in the algorithms? Or will the computer live up to its protean promise and adapt in endless variation to the computer users? 

Isley and Smith emphasize the risks and limits of seeking transparency and offer a specific path in regard to the possibility for the interface’s malleability and the capacity for ordinary users to shape it to their own ways of thinking and working.  Like Salmond, they suggest that the metaphors of the desktop are not simply inefficient or socially constructed, but also that they are superfluous, redundant and misleading.  Along with Salmond Isley and Smith suggest that the experience of play may be the key reference point in reconsidering our approach to the interface.  They describe a relationship between human and computer and take the conversation one step further with an example of how the interface might be claimed by ordinary people without the necessity for corps of elite technocrats to develop the software or the sense of mystification that most computer users currently experience. Where Salmond urges an increased invisibility, Isley and Smith seem to be pushing for more visibility or perhaps a different kind of transparency in which there is less interface and more direct manipulation of data.  Yet, what is the potential for such this kind of democratization this in the context of consumerism, information overload, and off-the-shelf gratification?  Programming a computer may be as simple as playing the child’s game of Snakes and Ladders (the example they use in their presentation), but will we have the time and patience to learn?

Together the four papers identify the interface as a site of consideration and action for makers of new media, whether in the arts or in industry.  For those making work in this area, the interface is frequently an unavoidable issue and one far more complex than ones associated with the frame on a drawing or painting.  For those in industry, where providing access to content is central, the questions raised may point to new solutions or new ways of thinking about the interface.  For those in the fine arts, the subject of the interface itself can become a matter of inquiry in its own right.  One of the key roles of artists has been to call attention to that which is invisible—invisible because it is not attended to or simply ever-present—and to challenge us to see it anew.  A hundred years ago Oscar Wilde somewhat tongue in cheek suggested that until Turner had painted it, there had not been fog on the English Channel, or at the least nobody had paid much attention to it. [4]   Today the computer interface is relatively invisible, as much by design as by its ubiquity.   The questions raised by our panelists offer challenges to be explored and the ideas about interface that they discuss are opportunities for representation, refinement, exposure and subversion.   There is encouragement to expand and develop our visual strategies as Chong does, to be playful and inventive as Salmond and Isley and Smith do, and to ask about meaning, as White does.  We look forward to continued response and dialogue.


[1] Thoreau, Henry David and Owen Paul Thomas. Walden, and Civil Disobedience (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966)

[2] Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes : Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002)

[3] Liebowitz, S. J., Stephen Margolis and Peter Lewin. The Economics of QWERTY: History, Theory, and Policy (New York: New York University Press, 2002)

[4] Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying (New York: Syrens, 1995)

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